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Roh’s historic crossing

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun made history this week by crossing, on foot, the demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean peninsula for over half a century. As the first leader of the Republic of Korea to enter the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on foot, President Roh’s journey to the North can rightly be called a historic crossing.

The historic moment came seven years after former ROK President Kim Dae Jung flew to the North in 2000 to meet his North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il for a “historic handshake.” Both encounters are historic and both are momentous steps toward the eventual unification of the divided nation.

On Tuesday, President Roh, accompanied by his wife, stepped across a 3-foot-wide yellow plastic strip at the DMZ and walked into North Korea. A small step indeed, but a giant step for the improvement of relations between the two countries which are, technically, still at war as the Korean war 50 years ago did not end officially with a peace treaty.

Kim Dae Jung deserved the credit for his ice-breaking trip to the North. Since then, hostility has been reduced by ensuing dialogue and contact. Mutual trust has been growing gradually, leading to the current visit by Roh who is eager to build closer ties with the North.

Roh said his summit with Kim Jong-il aims to foster peace and prosperity between the two countries. He did not mention the topic of unification, although it has been the goal of South Korea since Kim Dae Jung initiated the “Sunshine Policy” of seeking rapprochement with Pyongyang to achieve the goal of eventual unification.

It is still uncertain whether the second summit between the leaders of the two countries will yield any concrete results regarding national unification. It is certain, however, that it will bring the two sides closer in terms of economic cooperation and political dialogue. In other words, it will help strengthen mutual trust and reduce mutual suspicion.

The current summit in Pyongyang signals the start of a new era of reconciliation, dialogue and entente. South Korea, being a rising economic power, has much to offer to the North, a backward, economic backwater in stark contrast with the affluent, dynamic and democratic South. The growing contact will draw the two sides closer and make the entente an irreversible process.

North and South Korea, like mainland China and Taiwan, are a few of the only “divided countries” on earth today. Gone are the “two Germanys” and “two Vietnams.” Economic, political, and military forces were behind the reunification of those divided countries. On the Korean peninsula today, the economic and political forces could drive the two Koreas together, judging from Seoul’s growing economic clout and Kim’s “evil” regime which has been teetering on the brink of collapse.

In the short run, Roh’s journey to Pyongyang would be good for peace and stability of the Korean peninsula, which has been under the shadow of Kim Jong-il’s nuclear programs. South Korea is playing an active role in the six-party talks to pressure Kim to give up his nuclear ambitions. North Korea would benefit from having better ties with the South, which has extended a helping hand to its brethren north of the DMZ. In the long run, a blossoming of Pyongyang-Seoul ties would inevitably lead North Korea to revisionism — experimenting with economic reform and political opening-up to lift the country from the abyss of poverty. If that happens, the days of reunification of the two Koreas will not be too far off.

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